Toning Down 1 John: the Docetist Proto-Gnostics

I generally avoid big words on my blog, but “proto-gnostic” is necessary to this post; so is docetist.

1 John is one of the harshest letters in the New Testament. “The one that says, ‘I know him,’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar'” (2:3-4). The word “liar” is in the Bible 12 times, and 5 of them are in 1 John.

This is important: 1 John 2:3-4 is true, and therefore it applies to Christians, BUT it is not written to Christians or about Christians. That is why it uses words like “liar.”

It is well-known that John wrote his first epistle to combat docetist proto-gnosticism in the church or churches he was writing to. “Docetist” means that adherents of this doctrine believe that our flesh could not be saved, so it did not matter what we did with it. “Gnosticism” means they believed their spirit could be saved through knowledge, and “proto” just means “first.” It was the beginning. Gnosticism had not yet grown into its fullness of lunacy.

Gnosticism was almost certainly started by Simon the magician (Acts 8:9-24). After Peter rebuked him, he went off teaching that Christ was a spirit (literally, an “aeon”) that abode on Jesus, but was not Jesus. When Jesus failed by being put to death, the Christ aeon had to go to someone else. That someone else, of courses, was Simon.

There is a lot of early Christian testimony claiming Simon started gnosticism. I’ll have to write an article on that someday, but for now see Wikipedia.

The point of all this is that by the time John wrote 1 John, there were people who were deceiving Christians into believing that only their spirit needed to be saved. Because the flesh could not be saved, there was no point in keeping the flesh under control.

Horrified at these teachers, John calls them liars. No one who knows God ignores his commandments and does whatever he wants. Those who know God keep his commandments.

The same is true of the verses preceding, from 1 John 1:7-2:2. Apparently, these proto-gnostics were teaching that they did not sin. They could not sin because their spirit was saved and their body did not matter. John rails against this doctrine. Anyone who says they have no sin is deceived, and anyone who says they have never sinned makes God a liar (1 Jn. 1:8, 10).

Farther into the letter, John asks, “Who is a liar but the one who denies Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, who denies the Father and the Son.” Again, he is storming against the docetists. The Christ was not a Spirit that rested on Jesus. Jesus is the Christ.

I think you get the point. You can read the rest of 1 John and see his war against the docetists throughout.

The real point I want to make, though, is that John would not have stood in front of a congregation of Christians and told them, “You are not keeping the commandments well enough. You are a bunch of liars.”

1 John is not about keeping the commands of God well enough. It is about keeping the commands of God, period.

This is important. It is possible to read 1 John and be terrified in a way God has no intention of terrifying you. “I sinned once, I’m going to hell,” or “I snarled when I was verbally slapped on the cheek, I’m going to hell.” This is not what John is trying to communicate. He was trying to tell them, “Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s okay to live however you want. It’s not. I know you sin and stumble (1 Jn. 1:8, 10), but keep loving your brother; keep helping one another; continue keeping the commands of Jesus.”

We do need to fear God. Fearing God is beginning of wisdom and knowledge. We must not be deceived into thinking God is a harsh taskmaster. His commandments are not grievous (1 Jn. 5:3). He has given us plenty of power to overcome in this world (1 Jn. 5:4), and plenty of mercy so that we can pick ourselves up when we fall (1 Jn. 1:7-2:2).



About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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2 Responses to Toning Down 1 John: the Docetist Proto-Gnostics

  1. Paul Pavao says:

    My ultimate frustration with Witness Lee was the note in his “Restoration New Testament” that James did not understand the New Testament economy. Wow, what audacity. (I think that is what the Local Church New Testament was called.)

  2. Thanks for this little post Paul, I was encouraged.

    I think I was aware of the gist of it before, but it was still a good reminder.

    Many years ago I had some association with a group known as the “local church” (started by Witness Lee). Although good folks in some respects, I often got frustrated by their emphasis on what they regarded as a spirit/soul/flesh divide as it seemed rather gnostic. 1 John (and 1 corinthians) seems to fly in the face of that teaching.


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